by Tamara Sanderson, co-author of “Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus“
I’m not sure I should be admitting this publicly, but given that I’m human, here it goes:
Before I learned the ways of asynchronous communication — communication that doesn’t happen in real time — I’d often sit in on Zoom meetings where I had no speaking role. As I half-listened, I’d mentally disappear into my email inbox, furiously responding with the goal of reaching “inbox zero” by the end of the workday. Once the emails were cleared, I’d sometimes shop online.
OK, it’s out there. It’s my truth. This, obviously, is not a best practice.
Thankfully, I know I’m not alone. According to behavioral psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk, humans weren’t designed for 60-minute Zoom calls.
According to her research, humans can only focus for 7 to 10 minutes at most. We then need a short break before we’re able to start over with another focus session. Likewise, the mind naturally wanders 30% of the time, and sometimes up to 70% during routine tasks, like driving on an uncrowded highway.
Rather than fight against our human biology, why not work with it?
When to Get on a Video Call — and When to Skip It
To work with your human hardwiring, follow the ABCs of remote communication: “Async Before Calls.” It’s more effective to spend 7 to 10 minutes writing a brief or a status update in Asana than it is to join a Zoom call and wait for the precise moment when something related to your job takes the hot seat.
That being said, there are still times when synchronous, real-time calls win out. For example, Steph Yiu, the chief customer officer at WordPress VIP and one of the experts we interviewed for our book, Remote Works, likes to schedule synchronous video calls for building momentum and celebrating.
As Yiu explains:
When you really want to celebrate or get visibility, you’ve got to take it to the weekly team call. … Let’s say you want to celebrate a customer story, or a new feature launch, or something that the team doesn’t think about day-to-day. That needs to be synchronous. People feel excitement around the squishy, untouchable feeling of things.
Furthermore, product leader Ali Brandt prefers to use synchronous calls and Zoom meetings for brainstorming, iterating, and clarifying. In Brandt’s own words:
“And then there’s the brainstorming, the iteration, the stuff where you don’t have clarity on, like, what are we actually going to be doing. There’s value in having a conversation because if you tried to do that over Slack, it would be 50 messages, and you wouldn’t get anywhere. It’s really thinking about what needs to be synchronous versus asynchronous.”
5 Hacks for Great Video Meetings
So, despite Zoom fatigue, sometimes video meetings are the best option. Here are a few hacks inspired by Vinh Giang, motivational speaker and magician, that we recommend to make your remote meetings memorable. (And prevent people like me from being distracted by their inboxes.)
- Switch up your speed. Vary the rate of your speech to maintain interest and signal importance. Slow down for the important bits and speed up for the parts you can gloss over.
- Emphasize melody and tone. You can incorporate melody into your meetings by repeating important phrases and varying your intonations. Similarly, tone is how we express emotion audibly. Your tone should match your message.
- Pause. A pause can be so … powerful. It can be used as a verbal punctuation mark or a moment for everyone to reflect on your statement.
- Be conscious of your eye contact and body language. Eye contact and hand gestures are the foundations of nonverbal communication. However, they look different on video calls. You’ll want to look directly at the camera at shoulder height to mimic eye contact and quickly glance at the other attendees to check for understanding.
- Create interactions. How can you get attendees involved in the meeting? Design moments for interaction — whether that’s a simple open-ended question or features like polls, breakout rooms, or the whiteboard.
To start building awareness of these hacks, take notes during virtual meetings on not only the content but also the presentation style. What works? What could be improved? How can you incorporate this the next time you’re leading a meeting?
Remember, this is a skill that’s new to us. Not long ago, real-time video calls with people around the world took place in fictional sci-fi novels and Star Trek reruns. It’s time to play with the medium and experiment with new ways to deliver information, incorporating speed, melody, tone, pauses, eye contact, body language, and interactions.
Tamara (Tam) Sanderson is the co-founder of Remote Works, an organizational design and consulting firm with a mission to liberate teams from the nine-to-five and teach them how to do their best work anytime, anywhere. Her new book with co-author Ali Greene, “Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus“, is the ultimate playbook for managing remote teams. Learn more at remoteworksbook.com.